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When It Comes To War, Humor Helps Us Survive


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, I'll share some of my thoughts on the fifth anniversary of TELL ME MORE in my weekly essay.

But, first, we were talking earlier about the president's quick trip to Afghanistan. In his remarks to the troops serving there, he made sure to talk about the cost of the war on those fighting it. It was a reminder that service members who've spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq might be able to leave those countries behind when they finish their tours, but some memories follow, as well. Some of the conflicts they left at home meet them at the door.

Those situations are at the heart of "Water by the Spoonful." The play won this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama. It focuses on Elliot, who's still adjusting to life back in Philadelphia after serving in Iraq.

In this scene, Elliot is working, trying to take a carryout order over the phone when he's confronted by a vision of an Iraqi man he encountered during his time in the war. Here's a clip.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Elliot) That's three teriyaki onion with chicken, first with hots and onions, second with everything, third with extra bacon, two spicy (unintelligible) with American cheese on whole grain, one BMT on flatbread. We good so far?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Iraqi Man) (Speaking in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Elliot) Five chocolate chip cookies, two oatmeal raisin, three baked Lays, three Doritos, two spiceros(ph), one box, one Coke and two orange sodas. How'd I do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Iraqi Man) (Speaking in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Elliot) Yeah. That'll be ready in 15 minutes.

MARTIN: That was a clip from "Water by the Spoonful" staged at the Hartford Stage Theatre in Connecticut last fall and the playwright, newly crowned as this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, is Quiara Alegria Hudes and she joins us now from our bureau in New York.

Congratulations and welcome to the program.


MARTIN: Thanks so much.

HUDES: Thank you so much. I'm very excited.

MARTIN: You know, I have to ask you where you were and what you were doing when you found out.

HUDES: Well, I had no notion of the fact that anything called the Pulitzer was being announced. I had just dropped my daughter off at pre-kindergarten and drove a few hours north on the Merritt Parkway to Wesleyan and turned off my phone and went into class, where I teach play writing to undergraduates.

We were taking a break and stretching our legs a few hours into class and I turned on my phone and I was the last to know. There were a lot of messages and my phone was just beeping, doing things it never does. And so it was - it really was a complete surprise, so I was the last to know and then I guess my class was the second - was - came after me because I told them and they were very happy and then we...

MARTIN: Were you scared...

HUDES: ...to move forward.

MARTIN: To be honest, were you scared at first that something bad had happened? I mean, generally, when you turn your phone off and there's a whole bunch of messages, you know, on it, you're like...

HUDES: Yeah. I think they were very scared because...

MARTIN: Not a good thing.

HUDES: ...they started hearing the beeps and they said the blood drained from my face.


HUDES: And, you know, it's funny. Not to get morbid all of a sudden, but on a flight to, actually - in a first preview down to Atlanta, Georgia some years back at the Alliance Theatre, I had a similar experience where I turned on my phone and there were seven or eight messages and I just knew and that was a dear aunt of mine who's one of the inspirations for this play. Her name is Eugenia Burgos and she had passed and so I had to stay in the airport and get right back on a plane.

This time, when the messages passed the 20 mark, 25 mark, I thought, OK. This is good news. Not that many people will call me if something bad had happened.

MARTIN: Well, that's a good attitude to have. Well, that's a good way for me to ask you. What was the inspiration for this play? And I do want to mention it's the second in what I understand is a trilogy. And at the center of all of these plays is the character of Elliot, who is an Iraq War veteran. Can you just tell us a little bit about him?

HUDES: The veteran comes right out of a family story. In fact, one of the experiences I had in North Philly was that, right around when the war started, the violence that I witnessed the most, in some ways, was overseas because a lot of our young men and women in the community were enlisting to go fight in Iraq, to get paid well. Some of them didn't have a strong set of college prospects and this was a very well respected thing they could do with their early adulthood.

You know, it's funny. We can really forget about wars and these sorts of conflicts pretty quickly, and it's not a very exciting topic these days anymore because there are not easy ways to have those conversations in commonplace civilian life, about - how do you live with that? What happened there? Who does that make you now?

MARTIN: "Water by the Spoonful" features a very diverse cast. There are white, African-American, Asian-American, Latino characters. Was that kind of - forgive me for using the - imbedded into the idea, or was that just something that happened as you started casting it?

HUDES: No. It was part of the original idea, I think, and something really clicked in while I was writing this. In the play, "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue," it deals with one Puerto Rican family in North Philadelphia and all of the characters are Latino. And in this play I stick with that family but one of the family members runs this chat room and I realized as I did my research that one of the reasons why people were logging on to such websites was because there was a level of anonymity. And so people from various communities, who for various reasons maybe didn't have the comfort level or the access to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, could log on.

I created a character, an African-American man, who is a paper pusher at the IRS in California. I created a young Japanese woman who was raised in the United States who returns to Japan in search of her birth parents. And I created an affluent white man and they all find connection in this chat room.

MARTIN: Yeah. I was can ask is this that world with, you know, connecting with all kinds of people. I can see now as a successful artist and playwright and writer, that that would be your world now but was that your world growing up or was that something you had envisioned? I think you grew up in Philadelphia, right?

HUDES: I grew up in Philadelphia...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

HUDES: ...and I had the most international world at my fingertips. It's hard to describe my childhood, you have to know the map of Philly pretty well, but basically I was born and raised in West Philly, which is a combination of a lot of hippies. My parents frequented a commune there. And also on our block there's a lot of old Victorian homes that were kind of - had kind of fallen into disrepair, so they were large and they were inexpensive, and so my block was a starter home for a lot of large immigrant families. So just across the street my best friend Chin(ph) was Vietnamese and he's told me these stories about boat people in Vietnam. His family had escaped Vietnam in a boat. Right next door to him was Rowitha(ph). She was Ethiopian. Her family had just moved from Ethiopia. I myself was half - I'm half Jewish and half Puerto Rican. We were the only Latino family on the block. And so in some ways growing up I felt most at home in places where there was not one default identity but it was just a lot of people thrown together telling stories and being amazed at each other's various backgrounds.


MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes. She won for her play "Water by the Spoonful."

You wrote for another acclaimed production, the Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights." I think you collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda on that play, which was set in the Washington Heights neighborhood and, you know, that play was also heralded for bringing stories, you know, about Latinos especially, you know, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans of the neighborhood to a stage. I remember I talked to him about that and I had the opportunity to interview him. And I asked him, you know, there were people who were saying well, you know, it's not really real because nobody gets stabbed or whatever. And I just asked him well, how do you, you know, how do you feel about, just how people are responding to your...

HUDES: In my experience some of the criticism that we faced about that it was a - we were kind of painting the community with rose-colored glasses and we weren't dealing with the violence, those criticisms tended not to come from people who were living inside those communities. And in fact, at a certain point we looked up the crime statistics. We said OK, let's deal with this head-on, you know, what are people talking about? And we found out that in the neighborhood that we were writing in for the year we were writing in, it had a lower crime rate than other areas in Manhattan. So, you know, I think people do bring a lot of weight and baggage to Latino stories, but really sometimes those sorts of criticisms can be louder than they are in terms of quantity and we did find that the community was mostly quite grateful for a different way of portraying it. In...

MARTIN: Well, you know...

HUDES: Go ahead.

MARTIN: Well, in your play though, people, the reviews have been very wonderful.

HUDES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I think people have described it as funny, wise and touching, I know in Variety described it that way. That must be very gratifying.

HUDES: It's very gratifying. When I started writing the first play in the trilogy, "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue," I was very nervous. I wanted to deal with the war but I wanted to deal with it through a lens of joy and that was wonderful and it opened up a different angle on war to me. Then for part two, I thought oh boy, I want to deal with addiction. How am I going to do that? I was very nervous about it because I think it's a pretty miserable and painful topic. And once I realized that I was going to deal with it through the lens of recovery that really opened up a world to me because we're all recovering from life.

And when I started doing research and visiting NA meetings, visiting AA meetings, checking out these chat rooms online, interviewing counselors and recovering addicts, what I found is there is a lingo amongst recovering communities that is hilarious, and they have just a really wicked, sharp sense of self-deprecating humor. And I thought this is it. This is it. I can make people laugh in this play. This play doesn't have to wallow in misery. It can be about laughing at ourselves even in our darkest moments.

MARTIN: I understand - I read this in The New York Times. OK, I'm not going to pretend like I just knew this. None of the Pulitzer jurors actually saw the play.

HUDES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: They made the decision just based on the script.

HUDES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Now as a writer, how does that feel? Does that feel good or does that feel bad?

HUDES: It feels really good. I mean I feel that one of the wonderful things about being a playwright, one of the parts of this life that I love is that our work exists fully realized in two realms, which is on the page and on the stage. You know, growing up I read Shakespeare. I read O'Neill. I read August Wilson. I read scripts that I didn't have access to. I understood them as literature and they spoke to me very directly. And then as a teenager and as a young adult, I started going to see more plays and that had a whole different impact on me. And so I do feel that plays can outlive us all because they do stay on the page and they speak to future generations. And so it means a lot to me that my work was read as such, as literature, as work on a page and I hope that the next translation to stage is as impactful as I thought the original staging was at Hartford Stage Company.

MARTIN: Is there a plan to have it staged again so that others can see it? As I understand it, the play ran for about a month last fall in Hartford, Connecticut. Any plans to have another staging so that other people can experience it?

HUDES: Oh, absolutely. Right now we're in the process of figuring out how to bring it to New York as swiftly and with as, you know, exciting a production as possible. I don't know more than that but I feel that it will happen soon and also to publish soon so that people can read the play.

MARTIN: Quiara Alegria Hudes is the winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Her play is called "Water by the Spoonful" and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Quiara, thank you so much for joining us and every good wish for you.

HUDES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.